To the people of China’s Tang dynasty (618-907), no other animal was quite as useful as the humble camel.
‘They’re called the ships of the desert because they can travel up to 30 miles a day carrying 120kg of cargo,’ explains Camille de Foresta, Asian Art specialist at Christie’s in Paris. ‘That made them indispensable beasts of burden for hauling precious goods along the Silk Road — thousands of miles over inhospitable terrain to places like Damascus, Samarkand and Constantinople.’
When a camel could walk no further, its hair could be spun into light, warm cloth, its milk could be drunk and its meat could be eaten. ‘The hump is supposed to be particularly flavoursome,’ says de Foresta.
It’s no surprise then, that when the Tang elite came to choose what they wanted to take to the afterlife, camels were high on the list.
‘Noble and imperial members of society would have clay models made of all the attendants they needed to make their soul comfortable in the spirit world, such as soldiers, musicians, courtesans, slaves, wine merchants and even polo players — as well as camels,’ says de Foresta. ‘These objects are known as mingqi, which means “vessels for ghosts”.’
Over time, competition between courtiers led to hundreds of mingqi being commissioned for a single tomb — until a sumptuary law passed in 742 limited their number by social rank. An official above the third rank, for example, was only allowed 90 statues.
While we can’t be certain how many other mingqi accompanied the camels offered at Christie’s in Paris on 10 December, we can make some educated guesses about their owner.
‘They must have been very wealthy, because not only are these the biggest Tang camels I’ve ever seen at Christie’s, but there are two of them, which is incredibly rare,’ says de Foresta. ‘I would put my money on them having belonged to a successful Silk Road merchant who was particularly fond of camels, thanks to the money they would have brought him.’
The hollow sculptures would have been made by coating a mould in clay; subtle differences in the size and shape of each camel indicate that they came from two different moulds. The finer details, such as the hooves and eyes, would subsequently have been incised into the wet clay before firing.
Traces of earthy pigments indicate that after firing they were painted to look more lifelike. ‘Details such as patches of long hair have been highlighted,’ says the specialist.
‘Nearly all of the Tang dynasty camels I have seen are standing up,’ she continues. ‘Who knows why their owner wanted them sitting, but it’s very unusual. It’s as if they’re resting.’
While other Tang camels are adorned with saddle bags laden with cloth, jade, bamboo, perfume and tea, or topped with their grooms, these two are strikingly simple and stylised. ‘I love their wide open mouths that reveal their long tongues and large teeth,’ says de Foresta. ‘They look like they’re roaring skywards.’
Camel mingqi first came to the attention of scholars in the 1870s, when ancient tombs were unearthed during the construction of China’s railroads. An exhibition of Chinese ceramics at London’s Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1910 included one camel of ‘buff white pottery, coloured red’.
The camels soon proved popular among European collectors: in 1916, Anthony Gustav de Rothschild (1887-1961) paid the princely sum of £135 for his mingqi camel, while the famous archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (1904-1978) presented his wife — the English author, Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976) — with another as a memento of their time spent travelling the Silk Road together. Coco Chanel (1883-1971) even kept two on display in her apartment on Paris’s rue Cambon.
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‘There are lots of well-known Tang dynasty camels in major museum collections, such as the Met, the British Museum, the Ashmolean and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across another pair of camels this large or in this pose,’ says de Foresta. ‘They’re two of a kind!’